In chapter eight of his Confessions, St. Augustine recounts his struggle to give himself completely to God. “When eternity delights from above and the sensual appeal of a temporal good pulls from below, it is the same soul which wishes the one or the other, but with a will that is not entire, and so the soul is torn apart with the weight of its vexation while truth causes it to prefer the former, but habit does not permit it to put aside the latter.” He goes on: “Within myself, I kept saying: ‘Here, do it now, do it now,’ and, as I spoke, I was already progressing to the moment of decision. Now, I was almost ready to do it, yet I did not.” Augustine was “hesitating to die unto death and to live unto life.”
I venture to guess that most of us understand exactly what he was going through.
Finally, in tears, he threw himself down under a fig tree and prayed: “How much longer, how much longer? ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘tomorrow’? Why not right now? Why not the end of my shame at this very hour?” As he was repeating this to himself, he heard the voice of a child chanting, “Take it, read it! Take it, read it!” Hearing this as a divine command he rushed to open the Bible, and the first thing he found was Paul’s exhortation to the Romans to conduct themselves “properly as in the day…put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provisions for the flesh.” (Rom 13:13-14)
“Immediately…all the darknesses of doubt were dispersed, as if by a light of peace flooding into my heart.” From that moment, his life took a turn.
Years later, a Carmelite nun, who by her own account was leading at best a mediocre life, was reading this passage in Augustine, when she recognized herself in him. She had always looked to the saints for inspiration, but had often walked away disconsolate, because “the Lord called them only once and they did not turn back and fall again… whereas in my case I had turned back so often that I was worn out from it…. As I began to read the Confessions, it seemed to me I saw myself in them.”
“Oh, how a soul suffers,” she wrote in her autobiography, “by losing the freedom it should have in being itself! May God be praised who gave me the life to rise up from a death so deadly.” And from that moment the eternal fortunes of Teresa of Avila took a turn.
Our two heavenly mentors started out as spiritual procrastinators. Probably most of us procrastinate. We put off studying, or working in the yard, or writing, whatever. We know the problems it causes us and sometimes others. And we vow again and again to “work on it.” Spiritual procrastination – sloth, one of the deadly sins – is far worse, because it can have catastrophic consequences. And maybe we vow again and again to “work on it.” Or maybe we don’t.
Today Jesus warns us that we court eternal disaster when we procrastinate with God. How many of can say that we are not like the little fig tree that refused to produce its figs? How many of us can say that we are doing all we know we are capable of doing for God? Each one of us has something – some habitual sin, some attachment, some vice, some significant fault – that prevents us from giving ourselves over completely to God’s service. We all know what the problem is (or one of the problems, anyway). And we know we need to overcome it. But, like our friend Augustine, we aren’t entirely sure we want to overcome it, not just yet. And, oh, what a lot of work and inconvenience it will be to overcome it! Who has the time or the energy or the inclination do that? So we procrastinate. We tell ourselves, with no sense of urgency, that we’ll get to it sometime, maybe this Lent, maybe next, all the while “hesitating to die unto death and to live unto life.”
Jesus tells us that, while God is patient, we cannot keep putting off until tomorrow what we know needs to be started today. There comes a time when we have to make the effort to bear that fruit or suffer the frightful consequences, which will extend beyond this life. I think sometimes we have trouble taking such warnings seriously. We should probably rethink that.
Well, fear not, my fellow fig trees, for we have the Lord as our gardener. He takes responsibility for us, offering to cultivate us and fertilize us with his grace, coaxing and urging and encouraging us on. If we trust him and put ourselves in his care, we have all we need from Christ to overcome whatever it is that keeps us from bearing the figs God made us to bear.
And, oh, what glorious fruit we could produce – what a light we could be for the world, what salt we could be for the earth – if only we could make the decision, right now, to accept Christ’s offer to prune us, cultivate us, fertilize us. If only we would turn ourselves over to him – right now, why wait? – and offer him whatever it is that are clinging to that keeps us from being ourselves, the glorious, fruitful fig trees God made us to be.
On Ash Wednesday, St. Paul appealed to us “not to receive the grace of God in vain…Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation.”
May today be a day we choose one thing – just one thing – that keeps us from bearing fruit. Jesus’ parable warns us that the consequences of not doing so will be disastrous. But we can do it, we really can, with God’s grace. We just have to make the decision, today, to try.
May God be praised who gives us the life to rise up from a death so deadly!